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Estonia - The Free World!!

sunny 30 °C

No more train but on to a bus and a very elegant bus it was too as we leave Russia and continue west to Tallinn the capital of Estonia. We travelled with a lovely young Uni student who was studying linguistics and journalism in Moscow, he was also keen to talk about Russia and to hear about Australia and like most Russians we speak with he saw that life in Australia was much easier with the benefits that we have access to, hard to hear for some who feel that it is tough at the moment at home, but I think when I listen to them that they are right.

Crossing the boarder was again an ordeal having to get on and off the bus and take our luggage on and off repeatedly with all the instructions issued in Russian, in the midst of one of these a part of my suitcase broke, yes that new one, especially designed for international travel and with a 10 year warranty (and only 5 weeks into 13 weeks) !!! Trying to email Samsonite, will keep you posted
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We have left Rubles behind and are now working with Euros and despite changing 1,000 Rubles for about 8 Euros, things in the free world are a lot more expensive. Our air B&B is a lovely little flat just perfect, although John did draw my attention to the absence of air-conIMG_20180801_174405.jpgIMG_20180801_174345.jpg

Tallinn is famous for its world heritage listed 'old town', the most complete intact Medieval town in all of Europe and it is definitely a well deserved listing. It is a port city on the Baltic and has been a very important link in trade routes since the 1300;s whilst in the mean time being ruled by many other national powers with a few attempts at independence along the way. Denmark, Sweden and Russia have been the chief conquerors with also a significant input from the German principalities ( even though Germany was a long way off becoming a nation in its own right at the time).
The Old Town covers a considerable area inside imposing city walls and operates as a regular city with homes, shops, eateries and other attractions whilst at the same time managing a large tourist population, boosted daily by large cruise ships unloading their passengers who have been enjoying their Baltic Sea cruise.e694bbe0-9a6d-11e8-9f9f-f320d5f00e13.jpgIMG_20180801_195752.jpgIMG_20180805_113248.jpgIMG_20180805_113326.jpgP1020329.JPG

After exploring some of the Old town and sampling some yummy food, we headed off on a three hour bike tour, a highlight for John! Exploring the wider area of Tallinn, learning interesting history; so much about their ongoing struggle for independence from so many imposing powers. Estonians are also famous for their love of singing and singing played a powerful role in their struggle for independence from Russia in the late 80's. They have a long history of choral events and while we were in Tallinn there were many people from all over the world wearing lanyards showing that they were all in Tallinn for a singing festival
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Estonia has a museum for just about everything and I mean everything, so we launched into a concerted program of immersing ourselves in the history of Estonia and Tallinn. Estonians have a very dry, self deprecating sense of humour which comes through so clearly in the little explanatory notes beside the exhibits. We also picked up a Tallinn Card which gave us access to many of the exhibitions and tram trips.

Peter the Great (remember him from St Petersburg) also loved Tallinn he built a palace as you do in Tallinn, his "holiday house" . We popped in to check it out, grand but on a smaller scale . Back in the old town we climbed up on the old city wall, fantastic views and, guess what, another museum. Great timeIMG_20180805_114347.jpgP1020074.JPGIMG_20180802_120927.jpgP1020139.JPG

Posted by Seniorcitizens 11:11 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

Tallinn - Museums, Drama more museums

sunny 32 °C

More museums; town hall, bastions under the city wall, towers, KGB interrogation cells!! So much information which all worked together to paint a very comprehensive picture of the Estonian people as independent, resourceful, resilient, creative, tolerant and humorous who value justice, education and the arts and acknowledge the rights of the individual .
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In the tunnels under the city we explored the many ways the Estonian people found safety and protection over the last 500 years when the outside world impacted their safety. They have had a difficult journey since independence in 1990 and are still struggling, salaries are low but they have become one of the leading communities in e-technology.

We have read and heard so many stories of the oppression experienced under a range of totalitarian regimes but there was one account in the KGB cells of Tallinn I found really moving. It was recounted by a grandson to whom the story had be told him by his mother. A family living in Tallinn in 1950 with two sons and a daughter, father was a lecturer at the Tallinn university, a student who was the son of a Soviet official denounced him because he was failed by him. The lecturer was taken off in the night as an 'enemy of the people' taken to a gulag in Siberia with a long sentence. His wife wrote constantly to him (they found out later that he never received any of the mail). She tried to get work to support her family but was denied consistently as she was married to an 'enemy of the people'. She was told that the only way she could get work was to divorce her husband so left with a choice of her family starving she had little option. she wrote a long letter to her husband explaining that she still loved him but that she had no other choice, this letter of course never reached him but the divorce papers did with a biting comment from the powers that be that 'even his wife no longer wanted him' As time went on he married a woman from the local area and was ultimately repatriated to Tallinn where the tangled mess was revealed, but by then too much had occurred for life to return to the way it was before.
There are countless stories just like this and the weight of hearing them and reading them sits heavily.

Dramas
We decided to purchase a GPS in anticipation of hiring a car, THEN John lost his phone!!!!!!!!!EEEEK!!!! AND we got the day wrong for collecting our car so we had to take another one (more expensive of course!!) Tallinn was holding its annual Iron Man contest so all the roads were blocked off.
John picked up the car and guess what it had its own GPS!!!! It took an hour to travel a distance that should have been 10 minutes because of all the road closures and we couldn't gain access to our accommodation (we were told it would continue til midnight) BUT we did receive a message from our Air B&B host who had been contacted by the people who had found John's phone YEAH!!!
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Tallinn has been a real highlight of our trip.

Posted by Seniorcitizens 07:17 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

Tartu and driving on the right!!!

August 5th -7th

semi-overcast 26 °C

Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia which sill makes it pretty small! Drove through the Estonian countryside which is fairly flat, very green and a mixture of farm land where all we could see was hay bailed and wooded areas mostly birch. We were led by the "impeccable" guidance of our sat. nav. christianed Patience although I do suspect she may be a little bit blond! .....and I think that Patience buried her head in her proverbial hands as we negotiated some less than appropriate left hand turns. Oops!

Along the way we stopped at a medieval castle (approx 1500's), Rakvere, which has been partially restored and has a full compliment of enthusiastic young actors. Great fun if not exactly 'kosher' but it has been designed to engage young people and has lots of great ideas for that. IMG_20180805_150822.jpgIMG_20180805_153237.jpgP1020378.JPGP1020439.JPGP1020422.JPG
From there to Tartu a lovely town with an Old town area although no where near as sizable as Tallinn. Consistent with Estonia it also has an amazing range of museums, where to go? We are beginning to find similar stories retold from different perspectives in a number of different places, so are attempting to become more discerning. As it was Monday many of the places we had hoped to visit were closed but we did manage to see the Ice Age museum which dealt with climate shifts through out our long history, one fairly controversial comment suggested that man has as much impact on changes in the climate as would an ant in a forest!!! Of course there were the obligatory taxidermy mammoths and other prehistoric animals.IMG_20180806_134231.jpgP1020461.JPGIMG_20180806_143457.jpgIMG_20180806_133511.jpg

We explored the town and found some really quaint elements, an old bridge, kissing hill, a soaring cathedral which looks like either it was never completed or was damaged during the war.
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Off to another couple of museums!
First one, the the Estonian History Museum, a very new structure built on a site which was a Soviet Defence Base and which led to a ban on all visitors to the whole Tartu region. It continued to tell the inspiring story of their fight for independence whilst setting it in the context of broader history. One interesting feature was that we were given cards when we bought our tickets and by holding them over the text of an item we were looking at it would convert the text into English, an example of their cutting edge e-technology.

From there to the KGB cells, a recurring theme in liberated eastern block countries, this again repeated the same tragic stories and recounted the injustices that an occupied country had to bear.
There was a passionate but ultimately doomed group of partisans who lived rough, called the Forest Brothers who attempted to undermine the Soviet dictatorship but most were captured and either sent on to the gulags or executed. We found there a significant connection to Alexsandre Solzhenitsyn the Russian author of "One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" fame. this novel set in the Soviet Gulags where Solzhenitsyn had spent time as a political prisoner told every man's story there as Denisovich negotiates the tricky job of managing day to day. While we in the west were reaping the benefits of a comfortable consumer fed lifestyle those behind the 'Iron Curtain' experienced quite a different reality. Whilst they have had independence for almost 30 years it will take a lot longer to ameliorate the physical, material, emotional and spiritual costs in their history.
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Posted by Seniorcitizens 09:59 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

Lithuania oops I mean Latvia

sunny 35 °C

For over 12 months John had been insisting that we were going to Riga in Lithuania he revealed sheepishly just before we left Estonia that in fact Riga was in Latvia not Lithuania, a fact I could have checked for myself if I had bothered to look it up.

'Patience' (our in car GPS) had us well in hand by now so with only a few mis-directions we made it in good time and found ourselves right in the very centre of Riga's narrow cobblestone lanes. We are staying right in the centre of the 'Old Town' a significant attraction and just like Tallinn it is a mecca for tourists, so you may be backing up to take the perfect streetscape only to back into a German or Chinese tourist doing exactly the same in the opposite direction.

Our Air B&B is in a building that was first built in 1905 but which was subsequently 'gutted' during WW2 and then converted into apartments. It is very hot at the moment and as there is no air-conditioning we have the windows open to try and get a cool breeze in the evening, but we are right in the middle of "party town" so the celebrations go on well into the morning as we struggle to sleep. Yes you heard right we are not taking part in the party time. Frequently the soundtrack is punctuated by the sound of another tourist coming along with their 'wheely' suitcase which sounds, to all intents, like a furious tap-dancer outside our bedroom window.
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Riga and Latvia share much of the same history as Tallinn and Estonia and they too are emerging from the oppression of Soviet rule over the last 28 years. They along with Lithuania make up the Baltic states and whilst similar in so many ways each country retains its individuality.

Wandering around the "Old Town we continue to come across wonderful little gems which are displayed proudly. We visited the Guild Hall a sombre building with a self important air which was the respectable base for all the crafts and trades which had come to prominence during the
1400 & 1500's. They set high standards for members and for themselves and made provision to support widows and invalids.
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Museums are still big in Latvia so we made a day of it. Morning was the Jewish quarter with powerfully symbolic displays, confronting images and sensitively told personal stories. Before the war 40,000 Jews lived in Riga (slightly more than 10% of the pop.) when Germany invaded in 1940 (initially the Latvians interpreted this as liberation from the Soviet rule!!!!) Things soon changed and the Jews were subjected to all the same indignities that occurred throughout Europe. In their ghetto the Jews organised themselves in order to sustain themselves for a long imprisonment but within weeks they were taken to the nearby forest and shot into pre-dug pits (liquidated) . The space they vacated in the ghetto was quickly filled by Jews from all over Europe. They were brought in in cattle trucks awaiting the same fate as the Riga Jews. By 1944 when the Soviets again "liberated" Latvia almost none of the original Jewish pop. were alive and 1,000's of Jews from other parts of Europe had joined them .
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Just to ensure that we weren't feeling bad enough we visited the Museum of the occupation in the afternoon which covered the grim period of Soviet rule from 1944 to 1990. Latvia too experienced the same tragedy of the deportations, many for no other reason than they were the educated, writers, artists or cultured. Whole families would be sent, with men in one carriage and women and children in other carriages. Old people reminisced about the pain and grief of seeing the carriages that their fathers were in being uncoupled and sent along a different track.
The food shortages were intolerable. Every time I have eaten a bowl of soup since I feel guilty, remembering the account by one lady of watching her mother trying to make soup out of flour and water. It is important that these stories continue to be heard.

The following day we visited an ethnographic village just out of Riga which had begun in 1927, it is set by a lake in a large wooded area and displays dwellings collected from all over Latvia, from 1700 up until 1925 which have been brought together and set up as villages. Very hot day but such a peaceful place with the wind blowing through the trees. It was fascinating to see all the different techniques that had been used in building these places and different designs for fences as well. Very enjoyable.

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So many more great things in Riga, the Blackheads House, the Powder Tower(that is gun not face) and a great display of international bears, a gift to Riga on its 100th birthday from Germany. We also explored the house of a merchant from the 1700's, the freedom monument, erected in 1937 to commemorate their hard won independence in 1918. Unfortunately they lost that independence a mere 2 years later in 1939, first to USSR then to Nazi Germany and again to USSR until 1991, but it has remained a potent symbol through all that time.

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Posted by Seniorcitizens 12:31 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

Vilnius - The G-Spot of Europe!!!! AND "The Wolf's Lair"

semi-overcast 21 °C

Well you may ask.

Just as we were leaving Riga we became aware of a controversy that had arisen around a new promotion Lithuania was preparing to boost their tourist dollar/euro. Vilnius was to be labelled 'The G-Spot of Europe'! Puts 'throw another shrimp on the barbie' in a whole new light! Not everyone was as overjoyed about the plan as the promoters were.

Crossing into Lithuania and feeling hungry we stopped at, of all places, "Dino World" a park where families came to experience dinosaurs, to be fair they did have a small zoo as well. Didn't get to see any of the dinosaurs so I am unable to report on them.

Air B&B in Vilnius and a 2 night stay, John was delighted that our main day there was Monday as all the museums across Eastern Europe close on Monday, (don't despair though - we did find one that was open)!
Our highlight though was finding an amazing Armenian restaurant with the most awesome food and gorgeous waitress. Absolutely magic food cooked superbly.

Vilnius has, like Riga and Tallinn, their 'Old Town' with cathedrals on every corner. John Paul 2 is revered here and there are images of him in quite a few places. Nothing of Pope Francis though.

The museum was in the old palace and told the story of kingdoms rising and falling and rising again, such a fraught history for so many of these Eastern European countries, it seems to have bred resilience and perseverance into their marrow.
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Off the next day to Ketrzyn across the border in Poland and a currency change again to Zlotys, a very quiet little town, when we booked into the Hotel the person on the desk wanted to know if we needed separate rooms!
We have moved back another hour in time so now 8 hrs behind EST.

The reason we had come to this spot was that it was very close to Hitler's notorious "Wolf's Lair" (Wolfschanze) and John was very keen to investigate. We headed off with images of Tom Cruise in 'Valkyrie' in our mind. An early start definitely paid off , as the queue of traffic as we were leaving was endless, (attesting to its ongoing fascination). Wolf's Lair is a series of bunkers built into an approx 3.5 sq km area, which Hitler had built for the launch of Operation Barborossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 21 1941. The bunkers were built of massively reinforced concrete, dug into the ground and often with walls up to 6 metres thick. The area was set up like a village with residences for various leaders, meeting rooms, typists and secretarial area, a cinema, eating areas etc, set in the most beautiful timbered setting. Before the war this had been a favourite place for people to come and fish or spend time in nature .
There is a clearly marked track with warnings not to leave it, but most tourists took the opportunities to climb inside the damaged bunkers , much of the area had been demolished first by the fleeing Germans and then by the invading Soviet troops. The Germans had also ringed the area with land mines and following the war Polish soldiers were required to come and remove these.
There is a strange, eerie sensation walking through this place, the sun was shining and making patterns on the leaves, the wind was blowing gently and making such a peaceful sound and yet the evidence of the evil that had existed here was all around. There was a real sense too that the unrelenting movement of nature was overpowering the horror with stealth and strength, that despite all nature was supreme. In one bunker there was evidence of lime dripping through forming stalactites.

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Posted by Seniorcitizens 11:53 Archived in Lithuania Comments (0)

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